Monday, February 7, 2011

Jewish Identity

Yesterday I began looking ahead. I realized that if I want to have a job I enjoy this summer, it's time to crack down and start researching internships. This is my prompt and response for one of the short answer questions I was given:

Please share your Jewish story, or describe your interest in Jewish life and culture

I feel small - smaller than my five-year-old self has ever felt before. I am swimming a sea of strangers in the middle of the Kotel in the Old city of Jerusalem, holding on for dear life to my Mother’s hand. A woman in front of me is touching the stone wall, mumbling foreign words to herself and crying. I ask my mother: Why is that lady so sad? She responds with a simple, she’s crying from happiness honey - sometimes that happens when you pray.

After five more visits to this wonderful, mysterious place, I find myself on my balcony in Jerusalem, reflecting on my first encounter of this Holy City. It is February 4th, 2011. Sunlight pokes out between the palm trees, shedding its warmth on my cheeks as I type. I let my senses take note of my environment; the sweet aroma of baking Challah, the cool mountain breeze, and the clashing sounds of loud Hebrew dialogue are the same as they were thirteen years ago. I laugh quietly to myself, amused at how some things never change.

I realize that indeed, I am in the same Israel I have always known; stores close up on Friday afternoons, strangers say “Shabbat Shalom” to each other on the street, and Shawarma is still the most delicious food in the world. Yet, one variable has inevitably changed - me.

Of course I have grown since my first visit to Israel- physically, mentally, emotionally. And throughout this period of growth, Judaism has undoubtedly been a predominant force; its morals and values have become instilled within me, creating a solid foundation upon which I have grown and will continue to grow. I see myself as someone who has a strong faith in G-d, a desire to help others, and the motivation to carry out the concept of tikkun olam, repairing the world. These values led me to become a Bat Mitzvah, to attend Jewish private school, to voluntarily read Torah, to tutor trope to eager thirteen year olds, and finally, to take a year after High School to study and volunteer in Israel, my favorite place in the world.

All of these activities I simply delved into, never questioning why or what I was gaining from them. They just felt right. Only now can I see the intrinsic changes that took place from each Hebrew test I studied for, prayer I uttered, and trip to Israel I took. I see how I have developed a sense of Jewish identity.

The aforementioned “Jewish Identity” wasn’t always such a clear image in my head. So often referred to on my gap year program, the phrase use to loom over me like a hovering, ambiguous “goal." I signed up for Year Course thinking I'd arrive back home in New York with a tangible new Jewish Identity I could show off to my family and friends.

Thankfully, I’ve learned it doesn’t quite work this way. My program abroad isn’t simply a means to an end. The culmination of my wide-ranging experiences in Israel will become a part of my Jewish identity - not just a road to a destination.

And as I find the avenues in Judaism that best suit me, I see this identity changing form, evolving, and solidifying. I see it when I cook a Shabbat meal for my roommates and I to enjoy; I see it when I walk into my volunteering and see Arab and Israeli children playing together; I see it when I listen to voices intertwine in harmony at Shira Chadasha, the temple I attend on Friday nights in Jerusalem.

I think I can proudly say that from a young girl lost at the Western Wall, a mature Jewish woman has emerged.